A Department of Health and Human Services official told state senators Thursday that vacancies for child welfare specialists and trainees and turnover for those positions went down in 2017.
Those workers are the front-line staff working to protect children at risk of abuse or neglect.
The turnover rate went from 32 percent in the 12 months between July 2016 to June 30, 2017, to 19 percent in the six months between July 2017 to Jan. 1 of this year, said Matt Wallen, director of the division of children and family services. Vacancies went from 10 percent to 5.5 percent between January and December 2017.
Staff that left in the past year had an average tenure of 2.8 years. Those remaining in their positions had an average tenure of 5.8 years, he said.
Wallen appeared at a briefing for the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee to share information on child welfare worker caseloads, which have failed to meet standards of the Child Welfare League of America and requirements of state law established in 2012.
Inspector General of Child Welfare Julie Rogers said in September she was "deeply troubled" by how high child welfare caseloads continue to affect Nebraska children.
When staff has too much work, corners get cut, things get missed and errors are made, Rogers has said.
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The department said after Rogers' report it was working to combat its high turnover rate and to expeditiously fill vacancies. And it was looking closely at its training, career paths and ways to help improve job satisfaction. It was talking to team members in the field about ways to alleviate their workload.
The required caseload numbers, as measured in a month-long period, are 12 assigned families in urban areas and 10 in rural areas, for initial assessments. Caseloads for families with in-home placements are 17 and with out-of-home placements are 16. The standard for in-home and out-of-home mixtures is 17 families or children, and the caseload for blended initial assessment and in-home and out-of-home placements is 14 cases.
Wallen told the committee that of 78 workers doing initial assessments, 28 were carrying higher caseloads than required in June 2016. That number had fallen to eight of 80, or 10 percent, on Jan. 15.
The department's caseload measurement is a one-day point in time, rather that a month-long period.
The staff members who work with cases doing both initial assessment and ongoing in-home and out-of-home placements had a higher percentage out of compliance. For the state, the number on Jan. 15 was 40 of 124 workers, or 32 percent, out of compliance. That is an improvement over a year ago, when 51 percent were not compliant with caseload standards.
Omaha Sen. Sara Howard, a member of the HHS Committee, asked Wallen if he knew of any other state agency that comes to a legislative committee to report on how it is out of compliance from legislative and state law.
"No, I don't" Wallen said. "And when I talk to a fair amount of my colleagues across the country, I don't know too many other jurisdictions that are meeting the Child Welfare League of American standards, so it's not unheard of."
In his report to the committee, Wallen said, he was trying to demonstrate progress toward meeting those standards.